The Uneasy Relationship Between Policy and History


Hal Brands and Jeremi Suri, eds., The Power of the Past: History and Statecraft (Brookings, 2016)


“Embrace complexity! It’s the more reliable path to knowledge.” Such words might one taciturn islander exclaim at the beginning of Star Wars Episode VIII should The Walt Disney Company call on Philip Zelikow to author the screenplay. The exhortation is central to his chapter and implicit to eleven others in Hal Brands and Jeremi Suri’s The Power of the Past: History and Statecraft, an important new book seeking “to work toward a more fruitful interaction between the production of historical knowledge and the making of U.S. foreign policy.” The co-editors have assembled a distinguished, bipartisan team of historians and political scientists, several of whom have served in high-level positions in Washington and may yet return to the art of statecraft (Brands himself is currently on leave from Duke University as a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow in the Office of the Secretary of Defense).

The Power of the Past succeeds in answering two key questions that Brands and Suri lay out in the introduction: “How and why do policymakers use history?” and “[W]hat light can history shine on the dilemmas confronted by contemporary policymakers?” Former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg speaks authoritatively to both. In his chapter, titled “History, Policymaking, and the Balkans: Lessons Imported and Lessons Learned,” he describes three dimensions in which policymakers tend to approach the past, starting with “deep history.” This information is easier to acquire today, he might have elaborated, than during the era when his colleagues in the Clinton administration were reading Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts and hesitating to get involved in Bosnia. Stranded at an airport with spotty wifi in 2016, junior staffers can probably learn enough about 1914 to surpass the collective knowledge of their 1993 counterparts simply by reading the July Crisis Wikipedia entry, which boasts 215 citations to respectable sources such as Fritz Fischer and David Fromkin. One does not need to spend half a decade in the Widener Library, that is to say, in order to grasp the origins of World War I just about as well as anyone.

Nor does one require immense subject expertise to engage constructively in the second dimension Steinberg describes: “analogic history.” Policymakers ask each other: Is the situation at hand another Haiti, Somalia, or Rwanda? Good history can contribute to effective policy by stimulating conversations that produce options and predict opportunities, costs, and risks. Unfortunately, policymakers so readily and frequently draw upon metaphors of catastrophe to devalue analogic examples. After reading chapters by Mark Lawrence, H.W. Brands, Peter Feaver, and Will Inboden — all of which address lessons derived from America’s experience in Vietnam in one way or another — I wondered how many times Sen. Edward Kennedy invoked Vietnam and actually stopped a president from acting.

Analogic thinking is not the same thing as constructing a narrative. As Lawrence states, Ronald Reagan’s insistence that leaders in Washington chose defeat in Vietnam contributed to the astounding gulf that persists between what the majority of dedicated scholars think and what most Americans choose to believe. One could accept Reagan’s narrative — as did nearly everyone around him during his presidency — while drawing upon the same analogies to reach different conclusions. The American experience in Lebanon from 1982 to 1984 is a case in point. Deputy National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane was seared by Vietnam, where he had fought, whereas Secretary of State George Shultz had no role in that conflict. Both yearned to demonstrate that the United States could employ military power and sustain political will to impose stability upon a volatile region with porous geographic boundaries. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was ostensibly talking about Vietnam in his oft-invoked 1984 speech, “The Uses of Military Force,” and Lawrence and Brands discuss his admonitions in this context. Yet the articulation of the “Weinberger Doctrine” was basically a post-mortem on the flawed planning, tragic execution, and humiliating conclusion to U.S. intervention in Lebanon, an endeavor Weinberger had opposed from the start. If not necessarily with Weinberger, Vietnam crystallized Reagan administration “doctrine” elsewhere. The obsession to fund the Contras against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua outlasted the blowback from the revelations of covert assistance following the downing of alleged C.I.A. cargo hauler Eugene Hasenfus in October 1986. Reagan’s associates were convinced that the only way to prevent the inevitability of another Vietnam was in the form of a U.S. deployment in Central America, an alternative scenario they regarded as inevitable within 5–10 years.

“Did Bush [41] go to war against Saddam because he recalled the consequences of Munich, or did he use the language of Munich to justify a decision he would have made anyway?” Brands asks in his chapter on the lead-up to the Persian Gulf War. “It is impossible to say,” he concludes, “for the words and the thoughts were inextricably entangled, as words and thoughts always are.” This is an unsatisfying answer to a very good question. Clarity is no problem when it comes to “Munich” and the lexicon of American national security. Whether or not you wince at “another Munich,” you at least understand what it means. More ecumenical is the term Thomas Mahnken explores in his chapter on containment. Both Republicans and Democrats have distorted the notion of containment, as he ably demonstrates, by setting it up as a strawman to demolish in favor of their own policy prescriptions. There is reason to think critically about “containment” when policymakers and critics employ it. Still, Mahnken could more clearly define a positive concept of containment that distinguishes among states, organizations, and ideas, and is consistent with the successful U.S. containment policy during the Cold War. Containment during the Cold War was about a state (the Soviet Union) and an idea (communism), the former of which had turned back Nazi Germany and the latter of which appeared to be a viable alternative to capitalism and liberal democracy in 1945.

Did the Reagan administration reject containment for rollback, as Mahnken contends? William Inboden argues in his chapter that it did. I am less convinced, for reasons I elaborate elsewhere. Time Magazine indeed featured National Security Advisor William Clark on its cover in the summer of 1983, as Inboden recounts here, yet this article caused Nancy Reagan to express her concern to Shultz, who sought engagement with Moscow, that Clark’s hardline foreign policy priorities were fundamentally not those of her husband. In grappling with the question of the Reagan administration and the end of the Cold War, it is worth bearing in mind that Clark was no longer national security advisor after October 1983.

More persuasive is Inboden’s chapter with Feaver, the gist of which is that President George W. Bush and his national security team read and thought a lot about history and brought in some top-notch historians. Inboden and Feaver reflect on Steinberg’s third dimension, “personal history.” While the end of the Cold War undoubtedly shaped how members of the Bush 43 administration approached the world, Inboden and Feaver say that historians ought to consider its national security team’s lived sense of the Cold War itself. The role of personal history is enigmatic in the case of Donald Rumsfeld. His rivalry with George H.W. Bush, which dated back to the early 1970s, kept him out of government during the critical period 1989–1991, when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed. Did that set him apart from the others around Bush 43, most of whom had participated in the end of the Cold War? I would surmise that it did.

History can shine light on dilemmas in ways that complement Steinberg’s three categories. In her fine essay, “Narrating Democracy: Historical Narratives, the Potsdam Declaration, and Japanese Rearmament, 1945-50,” Jennifer Miller encourages policymakers to be conscious of memory and skeptical of turning points such as the “reverse course” in Japan upon the outbreak of the Korean War. The “shift in occupation policy did not mean that Japanese democracy ceased to matter in the minds of U.S. policymakers,” she writes. In an arresting chapter on humanitarian intervention, Michael Morgan prescribes history for solace. In the 19th century, he writes, the British pursued a moral imperative of ending the slave trade on the high seas while bearing in mind the moral imperative of not provoking another continental war. Decisions would surely be easier absent conceptions of honor and values worth defending. The same dilemmas applied to U.S. policies toward Cuba prior to the War of 1898, Morgan goes on to describe. As with Vietnam and Iraq, that conflict resulted from multiple causes. So embrace complexity, as Zelikow urges, and be upfront about it. “Rhetorical simplicity is usually a virtue in democratic politics, but the seduction of simple explanations should not prevent leaders from acknowledging the complexity of foreign policymaking,” Morgan writes. “Because cynics criticize the United States for cloaking discreditable objectives in the rhetoric of liberty, it is dangerous for a president to pretend that any decision to use force is easy or an unambiguous matter of right against wrong.”

The relationship between policy and history is perpetually uneasy, in part because policymakers must generate internal coalitions prior to action, whereas no individual historian needs to agree with another. Policy clarifies; history complicates. “As a whole,” Brands and Suri write in the introduction, “this volume aims to shed light on the complex nexus of history and policy, and to engage policymakers and historians alike in thinking through the requirements for creating and deploying a more usable past.” By the end of the book, I am not sure how many historians who not already inclined to study policy will have reconfigured their research agendas.  Those who are can write good books about bad policies; it is much harder to base good policies on bad history.


James Graham Wilson is a historian at the U.S. Department of State and the author of The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.